“Didn’t mean to really turn him around, meant to rattle his cage, though.”
It’s been almost 20 years since Dale Earnhardt, with a towel wrapped around his neck and a grin on his face, uttered this iconic phrase in Victory Lane after the 1999 Wintson Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Not grinning was NASCAR’s “Iceman” – Terry Labonte after Earnhardt knocked him out of the lead on the final lap, sending Labonte’s No. 5 Chevrolet spinning and into the inside wall while Earnhardt headed for his ninth win at that track.
Four years after a similar ending in the 1995 race, the accident sent fans into an angry uproar directed at Earnhardt. If Labonte, known for his calm demeanor, had gotten his way after the checkered flag, it would have resulted in a real-life version of a scene from Days of Thunder.
“He might be going to Victory Lane, but that No. 5 is going to be stuck in that side of that thing,’ ” Labonte said he thought.
But his Kellogg’s Chevrolet betrayed him at the last moment.
Labonte recounted his side of the infamous race Sunday night when he was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame.
The build up to Labonte’s boiling point began with about 10 laps to go. While leading the race, the two-time Cup champion was spun for the first time that night.
Here’s what Labonte had to say.
“I look up and my brother (Bobby Labonte) is running around on the apron, leaking oil on the apron. I thought, ‘What is he doing? Get off the track.’ Sure enough, here comes the caution flag. … I remember it like it was yesterday. I was coming through (Turns) 3 and 4, the caution is out. I was fixing to lap Brett Bodine. I went, ‘I don’t want to lap him again.’ So I slowed up here so I don’t put him another lap down. All of sudden, somebody, my buddy Darrell Waltrip, runs in the back of me and spins me out. Nobody remembers that part. That started a chain of events right there.
“So I’m sitting here backwards, right? And I thought, ‘What in the world happened? He just spun me out.’ So here comes Dale by, here comes everybody else by. … Well, Dale was pitting on the back straightaway so everybody thought he stayed out, but he really didn’t stay out because he had to wait until he could go around to the back straightaway.
“So a bunch of guys didn’t pit. I got my car cranked and took off. So we’re the last car on the lead lap. It’s only seven cars or so. I came down pit road, put on four tires. When you have four tires at Bristol and everybody else doesn’t have tires, you look like a hero, you know?”
(The race restarted with five laps to go.)
“I was coming through there, I was passing everybody and got to Dale on the last lap. We bumped a little bit coming off (Turn) 4 and went down into (Turn) 1. I kind of had a bad angle. My car bottomed out and Dale hit me. Spun me out.
“I said, ‘Sh….shoot.'” *laughter* I was spinning down the back straightaway. The car’s nosed into the wall there. I thought, ‘Man, I cannot believe this.’ I can hear the crowd yelling. I mean the crowd was yelling. … I looked up and I see that No. 3 coming off Turn 2 after he got the checkered. This is the part, people after that race said, ‘Man, you were so cool. How’d you did do that? You were so cool. You just got wrecked and you were just so calm and everything.’
“Well, the story was…I had my car, I cranked it back up. When I see the 3 coming, I thought, ‘You know what? He might be going to Victory Lane, but that No. 5 is going to be stuck in that side of that thing.'”
“I had that timed perfect. It was perfect. I had it in reverse and here he comes. Man, I revved it up and popped the clutch on that thing and it tore the reverse gear out of it after it went about three inches. I just got out and I said, ‘Oh, shoot,’ again. Walked to my trailer and changed clothes and went home.”
The race, along with the 1995 version, are now honored with banners in the Bristol grandstands commemorating the track’s history.
Watch the ending of the 1999 race in the video above as Labonte recounts his tale below.